Thursday, August 7, 2008

The weight is over for Olympic hopeful

Carissa Gump remembers an afternoon while attending Essex High School when she was challenged by a bigger boy in the weight room.

“He thought he could beat me in a squat contest?” she asked. “Guess again. I out-squatted him, which shows you can never underestimate anyone.”

Especially Gump, whose hulking muscles, dogged work ethic and unwavering desire have carried her all the way to China, where the pride of Essex Junction will make her Olympic debut as a weightlifter at the Beijing Summer Games. She is one of two Vermonters competing in the Games; Andrew Wheating of Norwich will run the 800 meters.

Opening ceremonies are Friday, and Gump competes Tuesday. That competition in the 63-kilogram (139-pound) class will bring to fruition more than a decade’s worth of intense training for the 24-year-old.

Proudly representing her country, home state and community, Gump is gunning for huge lifts in the clean and jerk and the snatch, a pair of techniques that involve lifting massive weight off the floor and hoisting it high over her head.

“I’m so excited,” Gump said. “In my mind there’s no higher accomplishment for an athlete than becoming an Olympian. It’s the tip of the peak.”

A natural

With bulging arms and legs as solid as fire hydrants, Gump, at 5-foot-1 and 138 pounds, has grown accustomed to the mixed reactions about her muscular physique.

“I’ve gotten compliments from people on how great I look,” she said, “and I’ve gotten dirty stares.

“My best friend, Danielle, and I went to Hampton Beach several years back and she was getting annoyed with the people staring at me. She was almost to the point of telling people, ‘Stop staring, she’s a weightlifter!’”

Not just a weightlifter, but one of the best weightlifters in the United States. Gump has snatched as much as 92 kilograms (202.4 pounds) in competition and boasts a personal-best 120 kilograms (264 pounds) in the clean and jerk. Her heaviest squat to date is just shy of 400 pounds.

Essex Middle School physical education teacher Chris Polakowski saw her potential in sixth grade and spent two years trying to convince her that she could be a national-level weightlifter.

“She always had this muscularity to her,” said Polakowski, who is also a weightlifting coach. “Whenever we did anything that involved strength — gymnastics, calisthenics, push-ups — she would shine, even more than the boys in the class.”

Gump fully committed to weightlifting at age 13 and quickly flourished. After just two months in the sport, she finished second at a national competition; three years later, she went to the Junior World Championships, claiming 15th place. She was just getting warmed up.

By the winter of her senior year of high school, Gump was invited to live and train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where she has spent the past 7½ years working toward a trip to Beijing. She was a United States alternate for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

“She put in the extra time to graduate early (from Essex),” Polakowski said. “That’s typical Carissa. You won’t find anyone who works as hard as her.”

Overcoming tragedy

Before walking under the bright lights of the biggest competition of her life, Gump will glance at a tattoo strategically placed on her foot and think about her older sister, who died in 2001 after an automobile accident.

“It’s five little footprints,” Gump said about the tattoo. “The colors are blue and purple because blue is my favorite color and purple is hers. They are swirled together and symbolize us walking through life together.

“There have been a lot of events in my life, like getting married, that I wish she would have been here physically to see,” Gump added. “She was one of my biggest supporters, and I know she’ll be watching over me at the Olympics.”

Gump won the U.S. championship in March and solidified her spot on the four-member U.S. team bound for Beijing after the Olympic trials in May.

“The competition was on Saturday but I didn’t physically or emotionally recover until Wednesday,” Gump said. “I definitely went through a state of disbelief after achieving something that I worked so hard for.”

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